Sunday, November 30, 2008

Juliette Has a Gun, Citizen Queen: A Review

I feel daft. I just don’t understand what the name Citizen Queen is all about. Was there a Shakespearian heroine or a historical figure that I’ve missed? Citizen Kane? Nevertheless, the ad copy and imagery surrounding Citizen Queen seem to bring the point home for me: Citizen Queen, as a woman, is one rebellious, sexy, adventurous, pistol-packing, independent, goth femme fatal.

With all this imagery in my head, it’s difficult to smell Citizen Queen without envisioning this fiercely independent, ass kicking female. Oddly, if it weren’t for the marketing imagery causing me to see this woman I might see Auntie Emma, the well-read librarian, with strands of pearls and glasses instead.

So I have this confused image when I smell Citizen Queen. I imagine Auntie Emma with thigh high boots and a pistol in her purse. Hmm.

Well, I guess this is sort of what Citizen Queen is meant to smell like. It’s supposed to be a modern chypre – a classic animalic chypre which has been updated, softened and delivered to us, dressed in black velvet and pink bows, for 2008. True, Citizen Queen is not as bitter or heavy as the older classic chypres but it does pay homage.

Citizen Queen is one of those perfumes where it’s very difficult for me to pick out the individual notes. A general description of the fragrance is a musky, leathery scent with a soft powdered ambery quality that’s barely dusted with florals. I cannot identify the florals but I can smell the musk, leather and powdery amber quite prominently.

I don’t often receive comments on the perfume I wear, but in the past 8 weeks or so since I bought Citizen Queen I’ve received several compliments. The comments I’ve received are that I “smell good,” and “fresh” and “spicy.” Oddly I don’t think I would have said Citizen Queen smells particularly “fresh or spicy” but I suppose I can’t expect those who don’t have a perfume (ahem) habit such as me to say that I smell like “musky leather” or a “modern chypre!” The thing about Citizen Queen is that it smells really good. It is an attention getting scent so those who like introverted, quiet and soft fragrances probably won’t like this. I find myself liking Citizen Queen more and more each time I wear it. It’s definitely a leathery fragrance, but soft and powdery leather laced with sweet florals. I’ve mentioned “powdery” twice now and feel compelled to say that I don’t like powdery scents (Habanita chokes me) but Citizen Queen only has a smidgen of powder, not enough to bother me, so even if you don’t like powder you may still love this.

Citizen Queen smells really good, I love it. It is by far my favorite from Juliette Has a Gun. I imagine this will be among the fragrances I wear often – not one of those bottles I have and wear only once per year.

Longevity: Excellent, easily more than 6-8 hours
Sillage: Potent, light application is necessary for the office
*Stars: 4

*This is my new rating system.

Rating system 1-5 Stars:
5 stars: Swooning all over myself
4 stars: Very good, I'll wear it
3 stars: Good. Decent. Average.
2 stars: Indifference. Won’t wear it.
1 star: Scrubber. Make this go away

Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Top Ten Perfume Neuroses (following Brian's lead)

1. I hardly ever purchase perfume at the store. And, if I do, I shop alone. I’m a lone ranger when it comes to my olfactory-obsession and I don’t want others’ opinions swaying my preferences. I don’t like chatting with SA’s and I nearly always say I’m “just looking” and take off. Somehow I manage to sneak sniffs and then purchase online or via telephone from home. (Plus, I get insane satisfaction when a package arrives so I love having perfume delivered).

2. I frequently “need” an entire line of perfume – every single Guerlain or every single Goutal – just to have the complete line. It’s sortof like needing a full deck of cards or having matching silverware.

3. Ditto to Brian’s #3 – I also spray too little and worry about being wasteful while the bottles pile up.

4. Ditto to Brian’s #7 – I also spend countless hours finding the perfect perfume for a person who just doesn’t get crazy about fragrance like I do. I often find said perfume gift collecting dust in that person’s home.

5. Having worked in the marketing/branding field I tend to over think the advertising and marketing campaigns of all perfumes. This is likely why I was annoyed with Tom Ford. I over think perfume advertising to the point that sometimes I won’t allow myself to sniff something because I disliked their ads. Or, conversely, I force myself to like a fragrance because I like it’s ads (Dior Midnight Poison).

6. I often buy perfume I don’t particularly like just because it’s “educational” or a “good addition to my collection.” Things like Miel de Bois and Apres l’Ondee come to mind because I don’t like either of these and I knew that when I purchased them.

7. When there’s a sale I lose all sense of reason. I calculate the dollar amount I’ll save on each bottle and think things like “when will I be able to purchase Chanel for 20% off again?” Saks Friends & Family sale is a problem for me. I am NOT like this with anything else. I don’t buy more clothing or shoes or bed linens or food simply because it’s on sale. In all other aspects of my life I’m frugal….except perfume.

8. I have perfume-related plans running through my head often. I frequently think for several hours over a few days about which perfume I’ll wear to an upcoming engagement. I’m surprised I haven’t started a perfume journal yet. I’ve thought about this a lot.

9. Aside from my “more monogamous” perfume project where I wear one scent Monday through Friday during the day I typically change perfume about three times per day. There’s usually a daytime/office scent then an at-home-in-the-evening scent then a bedtime scent. This adds up to at least 21 scents per week.

10. I live in fear of growing to dislike my favorites because I have numerous back-up bottles of these. Back-up bottles seem necessary because of what Brian said – the fear that the formula will change or the fragrance will be discontinued, etc. Totally neurotic, I know.

P.S. The above image is Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live. Ms. Wiig is brilliantly funny. She also has a knack for playing neurotic characters.

Jo Malone: The Martha Stewart of Fragrance?

Has anyone received the Jo Malone Holiday 2008 catalog? For some time I’ve been thinking that Jo Malone’s consumer demographic must be upper middle class (and above) soccer Mom’s. When I received JM’s Holiday 2008 catalog I felt as if I were flipping through the pages of a Martha Stewart magazine or Martha’s book Entertaining. Home décor and domestic bliss are strange associations for fragrance because 99.9% of the time fragrance is marketed with sex or beauty. It’s difficult for me to recall a perfume advertisement that doesn’t allude to sex, love or the images of idealized beauties be they male or female. Jo Malone’s catalog doesn’t even depict people; all of the images are of beautiful rooms, dinner settings, fireplace mantels and marble bathrooms. I wonder what this means, if anything, about those devoted to Jo Malone fragrances?

For me, the downside of JM fragrances is their longevity. I haven’t come across a single JM fragrance that sticks around a long time. I do love the scent of several JM’s, and own many bottles, but I’m pretty disappointed when the scent disappears after 2 hours. Jo Malone isn’t as fleeting as L’Artisan, I find most JM’s last about 2 hours, maybe, just maybe, 3 hours, if I use moisturizer first and apply liberally. Aside from the longevity issue, I genuinely love Pomegranate Noir, Dark Amber & Ginger Lily, Nutmeg & Ginger, Black Vetyver Café, Red Roses, Wild Fig & Cassis and French Lime Blossom. After creating this list of JM’s that I love I realize I certainly do have a good number from this line.

Just about all JM fragrances are linear and there are several soliflores. I would describe the entire JM line as smelling pure, simple, uncomplicated, very realistic to natural aromas and clean. As I describe JM fragrances I notice a similarity with Annick Goutal. I also have a large number of Annick Goutal fragrances (even more than Jo Malone) so I would guess that those who love Goutal might also enjoy Jo Malone.

When I wear Jo Malone’s Pomegranate Noir during the December Holidays, I’m usually entertaining at my house, painstakingly preparing the menu and dinner place settings. When I wear French Lime Blossom during the summer, you might find me meeting my Mom for Afternoon Tea at The Four Seasons hotel. When I wear Red Roses, you might find me with my hair done (for a change!) with heels and a dress at a friends wedding. When I wear Wild Fig & Cassis you might find me having lunch at the neighbors’ house, as my neighbor introduces me to her newest grandchild.

Why am I listing typical instances of when I can be found wearing Jo Malone fragrances? I guess because these occasions seem to fit the ideal created by Jo Malone’s advertising, which very much reminds me of Martha Stewart’s imagined domestic bliss. I can’t figure out if its Jo Malone’s advertising which impacts how I feel when I wear these fragrances or if it’s the scents themselves which enhance a mood of a perfect domestic setting.

If Martha Stewart is anything like the domestic goddess I imagine her to be, I would wager she wears Jo Malone fragrances (if not, perhaps Annick Goutal).

My Top Ten Perfume Neuroses

1. I walk into a store with a clear plan, spend an hour longer than I told myself I would, and leave with three things I don't really need, rather than the one thing I went looking for. I bought Elizabeth Taylor's Diamonds and Rubies this way.

2. I treat my favorite perfumes like old ladies treat their heirloom china, moving it to a "safe place" in my cabinet, forgetting it exists, while I tell myself I'm saving it for a special occasion, which is just a lot of bunk, because I don't have special occasions. Like those old ladies, I reevaluate any occasion that could be special, finding it, ultimately, not quite special enough. When I'm dead I will have full bottles of: Dzing!, Azuree (at 35 dollars; hardly Waterford), Parfumerie Generale's Cedre Sandaraque and Un Crime Exotique, Ungaro III, M7, Chanel No. 19, YSL Nu, Broadway Nite, H.O.T Always, Knize Ten, La Nuit, Vent Vert, Gucci EDP, Eau de Patou, Chanel Cuir de Russie (when I couldn't possibly ever use the 6 oz. bottle up anyway), Messe de Minuit, Caron Infini, Palais Jamal, Cristalle, 1000, Kingdom, Iquitos, Guerlain Vetiver, Jean Louis Scherrer, Comme des Garçons 2, Hypnotic Poison, Sables, Habanita, Bois 1920, Antique Patchouli...(stop me any time. Please).

3. I spray too little, worried about being wasteful, whereas having hundreds of bottles isn't a problem for me.

4. I ask for people's opinions, let the opinions influence my purchasing decisions, then go back, after spending the money, to buy my original choice, spending twice as much, if not more.

5. I will spend any amount of money on thirty to forty bottles I'm only modestly interested in, passing on something which compels me all out of proportion, because it's too expensive. I can justify 300 dollars on big bottles of so-so fragrances, but 300 on a knock-out is crossing the line into excessive.

6. I wear it to bed, despite many appeals not to. I in fact spray it on right before getting IN bed. This can't be good for interpersonal relationships. Not that I'm sleeping around, mind you.

7. I spend money on perfume to present as gifts to people who don't appreciate it, telling myself they will grow to love it and pay it proper respect, no matter that they think it smells like Citronella for the time being. These bottles, I've noticed during my subsequent visits, collect dust.

8. When buying something I instantly love, beyond all reason, even if by some weird temporary insanity, I think in apocalyptic terms. What if I can never find this fragrance again? What if this store closes tomorrow, or next week, before I've gone through a bottle? What if the company stops making it, or reformulates it in the middle of the night, while everyone is sleeping, and it's never the same again? What if I break my only bottle? What if someone else does? What if the sales clerk hides all the inventory to sell to her friends? I've seen it happen, people. What if someone wants to buy some? I could make a small profit. My gut reaction is to do what people do when cyclones are imminent. I stock up. Naturally, these bottles become fine china. Fragrances I have more than one bottle of: YSL Nu, Ungaro III, Iquitos, Caron Infini, Kingdom, M7, Chanel No. 19, La Nuit, Gucci EDP, Eau de Patou, Vent Vert--please stop me. Consult mistake number 2.

9. I tend to shop for perfume the way mothers shop for school clothes. I buy what is most "practical", though the term relates only peripherally to perfume. What will I wear the most (again, consult number two) before I grow out of it? What is an investment? As if perfume were stocks and bonds--or bottles of fine wine. I buy what will be nice additions to what I already own, as if I'm collecting modern art ("Let's see... I have a Warhol, and a Lichtenstein, now all I need is a Jasper Johns") or make educational trips to local schools ("Class, what you see here is everything ever created by Annick Menardo, even the ones no one wears, like Roma". Who would like to tell us what Benzoin is?). In short, I shop for perfume using deductive reasoning which has nothing to do with it and probably is better applied toward melons and cucumbers at the local market.

10. I treat perfume the way I used to treat my stuffed animals, as if they or their creators can hear me and might get their feelings hurt. "I should wear Tocade today. I haven't worn it in six weeks. It's at the back of the cabinet. What an insult, what an offense to Maurice Roucel that I've neglected it so. Or maybe I'll wear Donna Karan Signature, because no one wears it and everyone treats it like Chaos' and Black Cashmere's ugly step-sibling."

Friday, November 28, 2008

TWRT 11.28.08 (This Week’s Random Thoughts)

Unless I’m wearing an oriental or a chypre I feel as if I’m not wearing “real perfume.”

I heard on NPR that the supposed fatigue caused by tryptophan is a myth. According to NPR any large meal causes fatigue and tryptophan doesn’t induce a greater degree of sleepiness than anything else.

Givenchy Organza Indecence was the perfect scent for Thanksgiving week. (Yes, I’m still wearing one perfume from Monday through Friday as part of my “more monogamous experiment” and continuing to enjoy it).

I’ve never taken part in Black Friday shopping. I don’t do crowds.

For the most part I pooh-pooh everything at Bath & Body Works but my local B&BW was having a big sale last week and I purchased a bunch of shower gels. I’m pleasantly surprised with Sensual Amber and Brown Sugar & Fig shower gels.

I love Shalimar and have noticed it seems to be one of the least revered Guerlain’s – at least by the perfumista community.

The season finale of True Blood was somewhat disappointing. I’ll be upset if Lafayette is gone for good. But I’m hooked and will watch next season for sure.

Chantecaille liptstick in Nymphea and Cardamon are my new favorites. NARS still holds first place for eye make-up (by a mile).

I cannot wait for Big Love to begin again.

I’m reading Running with Scissors and it’s quite funny.

One of my paphiopedilum orchids is in bloom and it makes me happy every time I look at it.

I have yet to buy one of those really expensive candles – like Diptyque. I just can’t imagine spending so much on something I burn. But don’t think for a second that I don’t want about a dozen of them. I’ve been surviving on candles from Target – fairly happily.

Roger & Gallet Lettuce soap is lovely. Better for summertime, but lovely nonetheless.

I’m becoming impatient for Guerlain Insolence Eau de Parfum (not in the States yet) as well as The Different Company Sublime Balkiss (same deal). And I’m already anxiously anticipating the new Serge Lutens for 2009 called (I think this is true) Nuit de Cellophane which is supposed to be an osmanthus based floral. (Yippeee, not another cinnamon-stewed-fruits concoction).

I had a BeautyHabit purchase shipped to my office, which arrived on Wednesday, after I had already left for Thanksgiving, so now I must wait until Monday to sniff these purchases (Well, at least one reason to look forward to Monday!).

Star Power: Perfume and the X Factor

I've been thinking a lot about star quality lately. I'm reading a book called The Star Machine, in which the author, Jeanine Basinger, "anatomizes" the old Hollywood Factory, a system which manufactured desire, then sought to fulfill it by the creation or cultivation of stars.

What made one person (Greta Garbo, for instance) a mega star, where another equally beautiful woman, also a good actress, might not have been? It wasn't just the publicity behind her; the studio system working overtime. It was some indefinable but inarguable quality she had. Hollywood saw this potential in many people, and was able to exploit it in some by tweaking the basics: straightening teeth, perming hair or raising a hairline, crash diets, plastic surgery, dance lessons, voice lessons, poise instruction. Where the raw material didn't already exist the studio bosses sometimes tried to create it from scratch, but this almost always ended disastrously. Whatever that seed quality was, however much they improved upon it or tried to devise a formula to replicate it, it existed beyond definition and all practical logic. As one observer of old Hollywood said, you knew star quality when you saw it, not before then. How many studio executives, seeing Bette Davis for the first time, would have imagined 21st Century America would remember her name?

Inevitably, I started relating these questions to perfume. What is it about some fragrances, what quality, that makes them so powerful? We're talking about something like Angel or L'Heure Bleue, perfumes which have legs and walk right into the next century, never losing their appeal, becoming iconic over time or even instantly. It's the difference between Joan Crawford, who survived the transition from the silents to the talkies, and Pauline Frederick, who didn't. MGM wanted you to believe they'd created Joan Crawford out of whole cloth from one Lucille Le Sueur, as if there were some secret recipe they followed for mass appeal. Moviemakers are always trying to replicate the success of what appears to be a proven format, with an actor or a movie that resembles some other runaway hit. Similarly, the perfume industry released gourmand patchouli after gourmand patchouli trying to capitalize on the success of Angel (Chopard Wish, anyone?) and who knows how many fruity florals have flooded the market in the last decade, thanks in small part to the sales of a few fragrances like Carolina Herrera.

Pyramids and ad copy for these perfumes are full of pure untruths, half-truths, and fantasy images which try, like the old Hollywood fan magazines and studio star bios, to build appeal. From The Star Machine: "The 'bio' was a blatant advertising tool, designed, like all advertising, to shape the buyer's attitude and convince him that he needed the product... " But few of these knock-offs or sequels succeed on any kind of level that would validate the idea that a hit can be carbon copied. The secret of this kind of success eludes everyone, not least the perfumers themselves, who devise the formulas to begin with.

Some perfumes have built mythical worlds of imaginative association around themselves beyond any attempts by their manufacturers to make them best sellers. It's something mesmeric about them and no one can put their finger on it, though a few, like Luca Turin, find words to convey their power. Like, say, Ingrid Bergman, they've transcended a list of attributes and statistics and become something more, something huge, sustained by fantasy and desire. Plenty of actresses were foreign, had blond hair, a nice smile, a certain sadness, but no one else was Ingrid Bergman, just as Bergman was no Greta Garbo, whose success she'd been an answer to. Some of the most beloved perfumes have been helped by their parent companies. Guerlain has done particularly well building an image for its progeny, creating an air of glamor and intrigue very close in spirit to films like Casablanca. Chamade becomes an actor, a star, in a series of movies in the mind of its wearer, overwhelming the senses in a way no one truly understands. Turin can relate the plots of those movies in a way that brings them to life on the page. But who could film them?

Which of the classic perfumes would be which stars? Which match what persona in terms of broad appeal? Bette Davis would be Habanita, Tabac Blond, or Magie: something a little difficult, a challenge to fully aprehend behind all that cigarette smoke and bravado. Garbo would be Mitsouko, I've decided. Joan Crawford might be Cuir de Russie--or Coromandel. Something with thick eyebrows and fearsome bone structure. Grace Kelly would be Chanel No. 19, compellingly aloof, hot and cold simultaneously. Jimmy Stewart might be Monsieur Balmain; affable but sturdy.Modern stars are typically better suited to modern perfumes. Informal, gregarious Julia Roberts is hardly a rich oriental. She has that curious appeal of a fruity floral you wouldn't expect to find yourself falling for. Something fun-loving, with a sense of humor. Juicy Couture? It smiles big, has an easy laugh, is effervescent and uncomplicated, and you're hooked. Gwyneth Paltrow is easy enough: Kelly Caleche. What better perfume for a Grace Kelly carbon than one basically named after her? That said, there are contemporary stars you can picture inhabiting older perfumes, Debra Winger being a prime example.

Winger has always seemed out of place within the system and cut her own path outside it, much like Bette Davis, who fought with the studios and won, or Frances Farmer, who fought and lost. Winger seems too big, too willfully complex for the minimalist ambitions of modern perfume, typified by Jean Claude Ellena. She makes more sense with something like Bandit, too busy cutting her own path to bother daring you to understand what she's about. Even most of the niche fragrances seem too simplified and straightforward for her. Unless you're talking about something discontinued--something too complex and unusual, too headstrong in a certain direction to make it in the mass marketplace. Shaal Nur, maybe. Or Dzing!
One person might feel nothing for Crawford, or Garbo, and yet the draw is hard to deny, that star quality. Others, like Winger, difficult in some way or with less popular appeal, are acquired tastes. They're really character actors with the looks or magnetism of a leading player, too shaded and nuanced for superstardom. I think of Alexander McQueen, having just written about Kingdom. The reviews were pretty stratified. Kingdom would fall into a love it or hate it category. The kind of star that divides opinion, with little room for half way, and is consequently shoved aside into the margins, where it plays a supporting or unnoticed role. Black Cashmere and Givenchy Insense come immediately to mind. Then there are the stars and perfumes which make no pretense about aspiring to this very category, making another kind of stardom out of marginality. Comme des Garcon has specialized better than any other brand in this way. Etat Libre D'Orange has followed in their footsteps. Etro walks the line but probably having wandered into it inadvertently.

Just as the studios tried to manufacture star power out of simple boys and girls from Idaho, the perfume industry tries to hype a whole lot of nothing much into superstar status. It only rarely works. And in a climate of empty buzz and super-saturation, critics like Chandler Burr and Luca Turin, as with Pauline Kael in film, encourage us to re-evaluate our unconscious, unexamined attractions to various stars, putting chinks in their supremacy and, maybe, taking some of the wind out of the sail of a commercial entity which is full of hot air. The downside of this is that sometimes the critics themselves become authorities with the power to blow something out of proportion or to knock it down without much more than a sigh, like columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons once did movies and movie stars.

"Parsons and Hopper...could inspire genuine rage among members of the motion picture community helpless to fight them," writes Victoria Price in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. "When Joseph Cotten once kicked the chair on which Hopper was sitting to bits, after having an extra-marital affair announced in her column, his house was filled with flowers and telegrams from others who had been similarly maligned. But...when Hopper and Parsons liked someone, nothing was too much to do to help—and their power could become a boon for someone struggling to make it in movies."

Thankfully, like Parsons and Hopper, Burr and Turin often disagree, revealing how opinionated and inexact a science the whole equation is. From The Star Machine: "The problem for the business was that the audience didn't all agree on what they saw. Some said that Greer Garson was a talented actress of ladylike grace and charm, but Pauline Kael called her 'one of the most richly syllabled queenly horrors of Hollywood.' For their legions of fans (who still endure), Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald were the believable epitome of musical romance, but for Noel Coward they were 'an affair between a mad rockinghorse and a rawhide suitcase.'"

Turin gave Kingdom one star. Kelly Caleche is...bleh, to him. And yet Chandler Burr often disagrees with him by more than a single star or even two. LikeParsons and Hopper, those two influential Hollywood gossip columnists, who could make or break a star with a well-worded sentence, Turin and Burr even seem to have something of a competition going, friendly or otherwise. Background in chemistry or not, there is no real science to how perfume appeals to or influences us. Stardom is elusive and powerful, and stars are enigmas. Who can explain my attraction to Galliano eau de parfum? In one way it's perfectly silly and stereotypical. It imitates other more fantastic, more talented stars the way Christian Slater poorly recalls Jack Nicholson. I can imagine how it will be reviewed, once it hits the states. It would never carry a picture, and yet I find myself liking it, more and more, casting it in my own personal movies.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Alexander McQueen: Kingdom Come

When he took over the house of Givenchy several years back, and the world at large first started hearing his name, designer Alexander McQueen publicly dismissed the religiously esteemed founder of the company as “irrelevant”, instantly and perhaps permanently establishing his reputation as a prig with attitude and a propensity for shock so showy that few, even now, recognize what an enormous talent he might be.
Son of a taxi driver, McQueen left school at 16 to apprentice with Savile Row tailors Anderson and Sheppard. At 20, he traveled to Milan, where he worked for Romeo Gigli. He received his Masters in Fashion Design from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London; his thesis collection was bought in its entirety by the late Isabella Blow, his equal in extravagant uncanny with a specialization in baffling estrangement. He was one of the youngest designers to be awarded British Designer of the Year, receiving the honor three times between 1996 and 2003.
His clothes, however shocking or unusual, are impeccably conceived and constructed, wonders of geometrical form. McQueen has the talent to back up his attitude, yet the flip side of his arrogance is an apparently sincere desire to be liked. Following all his bluster, humility reads more like an admission of vacuous hype. After the backlash over Givenchy, he tucked his tail between his legs, expressing remorse, publicly teary, wondering why everyone hated him. Then he went about figuring out how to work within the system of a major fashion house with a reputation and an intricately archaic protocol more complex than his instinctive hubris enabled him to understand. This dance of attack and retreat, alternating between hauteur and abject humility, is one McQueen seems destined to perform ad nauseum.
Kingdom, the first fragrance released under the designer's name, marries cumin to rose, tart citrus to sweaty skin. Its reputation arguably suffered sight unseen, thanks to McQueen's own, which preceded it. At the time of its release, much was made of its composition, as if it were as formally innovative as Angel or definitively bold, like Poison. It is neither, but it matches McQueen’s sensibility well, conceptually and structurally, right down to the atomizer. Depending on how one holds it, the sculptural bottle, ruby red glass sheathed in chrome, resembles the prototype for some futuristic heart transplant or a slice of fruit which zests rather than sprays.
Kingdom is ineffable or elusive enough to resist categorization, though several detractors regard it as unfocused rather than complex. It was composed by Jacques Cavallier, the man responsible for many equally unusual, even challenging, scents. As Chandler Burr said, Cavallier is a "prolific perfumer so successful these days that he often seems to generate a quarter of each year's worldwide fragrance product." Often, the compositions Cavallier has created or to which he has contributed have as many detractors as fans. Among these fragrances are Yves Saint Laurent's Nu, Boucheron's Trouble, Rive Gauche Homme, Acqua di Gio Homme, Armani Mania, Jean Paul Gaultier Classique, M7, and Shiseido Vocalize.
Many of Cavallier’s scents, like Kingdom, might arguably be classified as fascinating mass-market scents harboring deeply niche personalities. He himself comes from what might be considered The Perfume Establishment. Cavallier's family has been in Grasse since the 15th century. His father and grandfather were perfumers. He says that this background and natural raw materials are essential to his craft, yet his fragrances often seem otherworldly, anything but traditional. Rose, Agar Wood, Jasmine, and Orange Flower are the most prevalent raw materials in his "olfactive palette". Cavallier remembers running through jasmine fields as a five year-old boy, and dates his beginning as a perfumer to the time his father first introduced him to the smell of the May Rose. His fondest memory from childhood, he has said, was the image of his mother's eyes when he woke up.
Discussing the creation of Elle, another YSL juice on which he collaborated, Cavallier said that the two most important meetings or moments during the creation of a perfume are the first and the last. During the first, an idea is proposed or generated. By the time the last has been reached, that idea must have been translated into a tangible, marketable product. A hallmark of Cavallier's artistry is his insistence on going bolder after that initial discussion, rather than toning things down toward a lowest common denominator. He has made mistakes of judgment this way, exceeding the fluctuating boundaries of wearability, yet almost all of the risks he has taken, like McQueen's clothing, leave indelible impressions, which might be why scents like M7 become cult favorites after their discontinuation, persisting in the collective imagination the way the childhood image of his mother's eyes have for Cavallier.
Though probably closer to an abstract floral, Kingdom passes in and out of rose so distinctly at times that it might as well be considered a soliflor. This is deepest, darkest, twilit rose, shadowed and thorn-ridden. The addition of cumin and mint takes things from interesting to odd. The scent is unlikely to win any converts to cumin, nor is it quite as fantastically strange (or as repulsive) as people sometimes assert. At times it seems downright old-fashioned in its dogged intensity. The rose and jasmine strike recognizable cords, but are sent off kilter by ginger and myrrh. Vanilla gives a faint suggestion of the gourmand, referencing Guerlain's Samsara. The cumin, as in Olivier Cresp's Rochas Femme reformulation, creates the impression of classic French animalics, creating a persistent edge to the construction, sometimes sharp, sometimes blunt. Maybe serrated is a better word. What you notice right out the gate with Kingdom is the citrus: bergamot, orange, mandarin, neroli. These persist throughout the heart to some degree, and along with vanilla in the base and the salty cumin overall make for quite a succulent experience. Succulent to some, anyway; salty to others. A percentage of the buying public is convinced the smell of Kingdom takes its inspiration from the armpit or, worse (apparently), the sexual organs. For some, that's altogether a bad thing.
True to form, when Kingdom sold poorly, McQueen released My Queen, a much more polite and conventionally feminine perfume, whose title might just as fittingly have been Please Like Me.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Comme des Garçons

People love to decry the death of something they once loved which has, by their estimation, subsequently jumped the shark. Thus, the "end of the novel", the "decline of the movie", and the selling out of this or that beloved band. Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices fame has, according to fans and non-fans alike, sold out at least five times to date. No one reads anymore because books aren't well written. No one watches movies because they suck. Artists can sell out. Filmmakers, politicians--even hoteliers. It's only ever one bad move away.

There's always some defining moment, some compass point by which to pinpoint the exact transition from great to god-awful. On The Brady Bunch, it was a trip to Hawaii. Fonzie literally jumped the shark, via waterskis, on Happy Days. The sellout-resistant band ultimately welcomes sponsorship from Starbucks. Toward the end, Will and Grace started peppering episodes with lazy turns by famous guest stars. The people who determine the exact point at which something jumps shark usually have high standards, a bottom line which becomes the final straw. Their expectations are disappointed and they can't make adjustments any longer. Hard core fans, they have definite ideas about the way things should go with their favorite group, TV show, celebrity, or cereal. Increasingly, perfume aficionados have joined these ranks, a migration which makes sense, given how educated, articulate, and cultured many of perfume's biggest followers are.

L'Artisan, to some, is walking thin ice. It's the whole persistence thing. The prices went up last year, and yet the longevity continues to go down. Some will excuse L'Artisan for as long as humanly possible, hoping that the company will consider its fans and do something to turn this around. Lutens has done its own dance with the shark, producing, for every Iris Silver Mist, a Miel de Bois and a Serge Noire. The commercial houses disappoint so regularly, are so generally inconsistent that their inconsistency becomes the one thing to rely on. Others (niche lines, typically) set the bar so high that even when they fall short and are way above average in effort and accomplishment they can seem more like dismal failures.

Comme des Garçons has practically defined the concept of conceptual perfumery over the last fifteen years or so, but their project began with fashion. The clothing line was started as a women's label in 1969 by designer Rei Kawakubo. It was established as a company in 1973. By 1978, a men's line was added. Over its first several decades, Comme des Garçons (translation: "like the boys") pushed the fashion envelope in almost every conceivable way, distressing, tearing, fraying, and puncturing fabric, dissolving or disassembling structure, fading the palette to a monochromatic black, turning ideas like "pretty" and "glamor" and "silhouette" inside out. Their mission seemed to be a total re-evaluation of the psychological underpinnings of fashion, with an emphasis on, as Kawakubo herself put it, "breaking down the barriers between art and fashion." The 1997 collection, which came to be known as the "lumps and bumps" line, advanced a destabilization of traditional forms of beauty and form. More recently, in 2006, the label presented a collection on the theme of "Persona", mixing feminine and masculine elements to explore how we define ourselves through gendered dress codes and rigorously enforced social attitudes about self-presentation.

The first Comme des Garçons fragrance was released in 1994. It was a woods and spice eau de parfum in a now iconic flattened oblong brown bottle designed by Kawakubo and Marc Atlan. The juice was composed by Marc Buxton, who had just done Dalissime for Salvador Dali and Pasha for Cartier. The original CDG perfume has spawned so many imitators that one easily forgets how truly avante garde it was at the time and, to some extent, still is. The following year, a flanker, called White, was released, adding to the initial formula a strong floral quotient and the fruity influence of pomegranate.

In 1998, CDG released Odeur 53, the first in a series of "anti-perfumes". It was the company's boldest fragrance assertion yet, the first to match the irreverently off-kilter spirit of the clothes. Composed of 53 non-traditional notes (flash of metal, sand dunes, nail polish, and so forth) the "scent" questioned what constitutes a perfume in much the same way the clothes challenged what it is to be a shirt or a dress. Clothes, Kawakubo has always seemed to say, serve not just a cosmetic but a social function. What happens if they are liberated from this responsibility? Who says a skirt has to look like a skirt? How far can you take a skirt before it isn't one at all? Odeur 53 asked similar questions, much to many people's consternation. An abstract floral seeks to replicate known natural entities with unknown or unfamiliar ingredients, often synthetic. Odeur 53 went further, arguably in the opposite direction, creating an abstract banal. Rather than conceal the synthetic aspects of its composition, 53 embraced them, proposing scent as a Brechtian exercise.

After Odeur 53 CDG presented ever more ambitious propositions. Comme des Garçons 2 (1999) evoked flowers without employing many. The logo was rendered in the squiggly line of a ballpoint pen, while the scent itself recalled the inky aroma of the childhood classroom and the theoretical outdoors. Like the bottle, a variation on the original flat oblong, the juice shimmered with metallic sheen, reflecting and distorting various associative impressions like a sleek funhouse mirror. 2 took its cues from an object or evocation the same way other perfumes did, but where their departure points were flowers, spices, woods, and fruits, 2 looked to everyday objects and sense perceptions. Odeur 71 followed in these footsteps a year later, extending the experiment of 53.

The years since have been very productive for the company. What started as individual releases became multiple part exercises in conceptual perfumery, starting with the Leaves series: Calamus, Lily, Mint, Shiso, and Tea. All but Tea, Lily, and Calamus have since been discontinued. Series 2: Red (2001) included Carnation, Harrisa, Palisander, Sequoia, and Rose. Perhaps the most popular series, involving incense, followed. Avignon, Jaisalmer, Kyoto, Quarzazate, and Zagorsk are largely gorgeous iterations of the company's unusual sensibility, and predate the rage for incense compositions by several years. The series themselves, taken collectively, have asserted perfume as an endless resource for investigation into everything from color (red, green) to different religious chambers and states of mind from around the globe, tying the latter all together into an aromatic declaration of religious tolerance and spiritual unity, taking transcendence out of the cathedral and into the head space.

The company's increasingly ambitious exercises have produced a wider variety of hits and near misses, and everything in between, prompting some to level accusations of decline. The general consensus seems to be that the shark fin approached shortly after the incense series, though Series 5: Sherbert has as many admirers as critics. Series 6: Synthetics goes some way toward closing that gap. Series 7: Sweet seems almost universally derided. It's too early to tell with Series 8: Energy C, whose Lime, Lemon and Grapefruit seem to have been received lukewarmly at best. It's difficult just yet to situate singular scents like 2007's Play and this year's Monocle Scent 1: Hinoki and 8 88 within the CDG oeuvre. Though they follow in the footsteps of earlier CDG fragrances, they depart from the "Series" Series, sticking out sore-thumb-like. A few of the company's smaller series (mini-series, if you will) have been charged with the blame of bringing the line's heyday of playful and provocative experimentation to a close, if not an imaginatively bankrupt standstill.

Guerillas 1 and 2 are named after CDG stores which sprouted up briefly in unlikely places, challenging the concept of permanence and brand stability in a world inhospitable to such things. Guerilla 1, with its meat notes and vague air of urban refuse, is often regarded as unwearable on the one hand and a tad too conventional on the other, somehow both too arty and too boring to bother with at the same time. The top opens with pear, saffron, and clove, an unforgivable offense, if not outright assault, to some. From there, insult adds to injury: the heart notes include Champaca flower and black pepper. Guerilla 1 is certainly an unusual scent. Inhaling it, the mind tries to connect it to something, filing through a mental rolodex of potential source materials. The effect is a wavering indeterminacy, a sort of way station fragrance, like the pop-up stores the scents are named after. Guerilla 1 was the brainchild of Marie-Aude Couture, whose other best known fragrance might be the previous year's Eau d'Amazonie.

Guerilla 2, by Nathalie Feisthauer, is considered the more conventional of the duo, though it's hard to see exactly why when in this case the word conventional becomes highly relative. The notes are listed as bergamot, pink pepper, ginger, red pepper, curcama, raspberry, tuberose, vetiver, cedarwood, and musk. The key word is "red". The result is tangy, tart, and somewhat savory too. The vetiver seems just the pinch of salt the affair calls for. Feisthauer has done work for Etat Libre d'Orange, another equally adventurous perfume line which arguably wouldn't exist were it not for the path CDG has forged. Both Guerillas are wearable and, though said to be more feminine than not by some, each mixes feminine and masculine attributes and impressions in ways which fit perfectly into the company's credo. Guerilla 1 has more development and seems slightly more indecipherable. But Guerilla 2 demonstrates more than a little stealth itself; hard to tell what exactly is going on in this fragrance, though it seems to know where it's going.

Of the Synthetics, I prefer Garage, which as a friend pointed out, smells like your grandparents' detached garage, with the Schwinn bike tires and the still-wet innertubes stacked in a corner, the tennis ball hanging from the ceiling to designate the stop point for parking the car, some oil on the concrete floor, some sawdust, old magazines, humidity, and vinyl. It's a wonderful evocation, with persistence like nobody's business, creating sensory memories out of thin air. Even the maligned Sweets Series has its standouts. Nomad Tea is actually one of the more unusual and enigmatic fragrances of the entire line, mixing what smells like birch tar with minty artemesia. Wood Coffee and Sticky Cake are far more compelling than they're given credit for.

Luxe Champaca and Patchouli are standouts, not just in quality but cost. They're expensive, to be sure, but Patchouli, at least, lingers so well that it might make up for it, if you give it the time. These two seem like something of an anomaly for a line which is otherwise fairly affordable and populist. Nevertheless, they open questions about what luxury means and who has access to it and in some ways they seem to indicate an exercise in irony, though it's unclear who the joke is on. One thing seems abundantly clear. Comme des Garçons is alive and well, despite claims otherwise, playing around with form and content and what it means to smell and be smelled. Recently, the company designed a line for the H & M Department Store Chain, complete with signature fragrance. This will inevitably be seen as a compromise of some kind, a watered down version of previous genius. But let's all get real: Comme des Garçons has never pretended to be anything but fake. If a shark fin is in fact circling the company's image, it's attached to a stick which Kawakubo manipulates from under the water.